By TOM MANOFF
You can’t really assess what was at this season’s Oregon Bach Festival without acknowledging what wasn’t: erstwhile artistic director Matthew Halls, the multi-talented conductor whose questionable dismissal last year was widely covered throughout the arts world. Would this new season put an end to the shocking (for many) episode? Would this year’s music reassure audiences and musicians that OBF will continue at the highest levels of artistry? Most crucial, could the festival of founding artistic director Helmuth Rilling and Matthew Halls remain world class — without a music director?
Baroque on Steroids
OBF 2018 started June 29 at Silva Hall with audience favorite Monica Huggett leading the Festival’s 30-member Baroque Orchestra in four of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. In first half lineup of Brandenburgs 2, 4, and 5, No.4 was best performed, with Huggett’s virtuosic violin passages shimmering through Bach’s delightfully dense harmony and counterpoint.
The other two Brandenburgs fared less well with poor ensemble playing. The tempos were quite brisk and not all sections kept up with the pace.
The OBF Berwick Academy — the festival’s workshop orchestra of 30 young period instrumentalists — joined the OBF pros to make an unusually large orchestra for Bach, but suitable for Silva’s large space. Perhaps in keeping with this “Baroque-on-steroids” ensemble, Huggett led an irreverent (but somewhat charming) interpretation of Brandenburg One. The longtime Portland Baroque Orchestra leader and renowned Baroque violinist asked the audience to imagine that the two horn players in the ensemble were drunk, low-born musicians who had crashed a royal musical occasion. Whenever they played, Huggett pointed her bow to them, exhorting a loud, over the top effect. At other times Huggett stomped her feet with the music. Not your standard Bach, but the audience loved it. I remain on the fence. Since the concert I’ve listened to the work several times on CD with the score to restore the music to a more pristine version in my mind.
The concert ended with a tidy performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, led from the keyboard by visiting conductor Alexander Weimann, but, following the “Bach Bacchanale” that was the Brandenburg One, the Suite came off as too straight-laced.
Silva’s acoustic was problematic. The sound was unfocused and without warmth. But last year, in the same hall, a splendid OBF performance of Handel’s Hercules proved that some Baroque fare sounds fine in Silva space. But Handel’s textures are generally less dense than Bach’s, especially the Brandenburgs. How to use Silva (and its electronic enhancement system) is an ongoing issue for OBF, ideally addressed by a future artistic director.
My favorite performance of the festival was by the Berwick Academy. The first half of their July 3 concert featured Telemann’s Overture in E minor, Händel’s Concerto Grosso in A major Op.6, No.11, and the suite from his 1706 opera Rodrigo in B flat.
This performance featured what every good Baroque outing must have: a decisive, forward moving bass line from the continuo instruments. In too many performances, the bass line plods along with no regard for the melodic richness. But here, the energized and nuanced phrasing by the cello and double bass Berwick players enlivened the lower part of the musical structure.
Phrasing from the entire ensemble was wonderful. Renowned Dutch harpsichordist Jacques Ogg directed from the keyboard. Concertmaster Chloe Fedor was particularly elegant leading the string section, and moving with the phrasing almost like a dancer.
Berwick’s next outing on July 9 was blemished by a substandard performance of Mozart’s Serenade No. 12 in C minor for winds. It’s a difficult piece, especially for younger players, and this work was beyond their current abilities and should not have been programmed. A long-time OBF fan at the concert told me, “this was the worst performance I’ve seen at the festival.” Although the ticket prices for Berwick concerts are lower than the main events (student $10, normal $20-30), OBF presents Berwick as full-fledged artistic outings.
The Berwick Academy was created by Matthew Halls. Having seen the level of artistry they are capable of under his leadership, I’m certain this misstep would not have occurred were he still at the helm.
There is no more iconic event in an OBF season than the Discovery Series. Created by Helmuth Rilling and successfully continued by Matthew Halls, the lecture/performance series explores a particular work by Bach.
In the past, the event included participants from the festival’s training program for conductors, but the conducting program wasn’t offered this year. The event has been a primary component of the festival’s contribution to efforts to keep Bach relevant in the modern world.
The Discovery Series this year was led by Scott Jarrett, who has been involved with the OBF as the head of its Vocal Fellows Program (which was also suspended for this season.) Currently Director of Music at Boston University Marsh Chapel, Jarrett is a conductor, pianist and vocalist.
Jarrett presented Bach Cantatas 77 and 105 on two evenings. The chorus on both nights sang flawlessly, keeping OBF’s high choral standards intact. While Jarrett led his singers with nuance and precision, he had considerably less control of the OBF Baroque Orchestra. The result was often an uncertain ensemble. Focused phrasing from the chorus was laden with emotion; minimal phrasing from the instrumentalists was bland. Jarrett seems more comfortable conducting singers than instrumentalists.
Jarrett’s comments about the cantatas were sometimes interesting, but his delivery of the information was rather dull. Remembering the series under Rilling or Halls, it was clear that the series requires a personality able to make the complexities of Bach’s structure fathomable, while speaking to audiences with equal amounts of scholarship and charm. Jarrett was not at that level for me.
Jarrett is not listed as the permanent head of the Discovery Series. This is another problem for OBF in sorting out artistic leadership.
The Passion of Yeshua
The Passion of Yeshua premiered on Sunday, July 8 at Silva Hall. American composer Richard Danielpour’s new two-hour OBF commission for chorus, soloists and orchestra explores the last day of the life of Jesus from both Christian and Jewish traditions. The text is set in both English and Hebrew. Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta, who conducts the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, led the well-prepared, polished performance.
Danielpour writes in a solidly tonal idiom: major, minor and modal harmonies are often enhanced with not-too-heavy dissonances. Danielpour’s idiom is rarely contrapuntal. The sound is thick and rich, which furthers an overall muscular effect. The form is occasionally punctuated with sudden, Stravinsky-like chords, with higher levels of dissonance. At first these gestures have considerable dramatic effect, but as they repeat throughout the work, they start to seem too familiar.
Six excellent singers delivered the solo sections of the religious drama: soprano Sarah Shafer, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, tenor Timothy Fallon, baritone Matthew Worth, bass-baritone Kenneth Overton, and bass Edmund Milly. The soloists’ melodies generally proceeded step-by-step along the musical scale, which, to some extent, brought a sameness to the overall effect.
Some of the composer’s best music was the choral writing, consistently providing its most interesting harmonies and textures, and accordingly, the standout in this performance was the chorus. They delivered their parts with the assurance of focused musical intent.
Towards the end of the work, there was a lovely duet between Bridges and Shafer, made up of interesting, somewhat striking intervals. At that moment, I wondered why Danielpour hadn’t further explored this harmonic material throughout. The impact would have been more effective.
Following the complicated drama proved difficult. The festival provided no text in the program or as an insert. Audiences had to rely on supertitles. It was hard to keep track of where each section began and ended, much less the relationships among them. At one moment, I think I heard the chorus singing a Hebrew song “Heneh Ma Tov.” Why? Surely a complete text would have provided some context. At the very least, the program should have had a synopsis of the various sections. I think one of the work’s richest qualities was missed without a text. (Bruce Browne pointed to similar deficiencies in his ArtsWatch review of last year’s festival.)
A performance of Danielpour’s Passion is scheduled for next year in Buffalo. I encourage the presenters to provide a text or synopsis.
Overall, the work didn’t impress me, primarily because I found his harmonic language too static to sustain the text. Still, Danielpour’s Passion was enthusiastically received by the audience. From that viewpoint, it was a success for OBF.
In addition to the Danielpour Passion, OBF offered another premiere. Written for pianist Simone Dinnerstein, Philip Glass’ Piano Concerto No. 3. is a “rolling commission,” with local “premieres” across the US and Canada, since its actual debut in Boston in September 2017.
The music has many stylistic traits associated with Glass — pulsating chords, repeated arpeggios, for example. The most telling features were melodic/harmonic fragments that repeated incessantly — and quite delightfully. The musical substance of these motives — if taken out of context — was utterly 19th century romantic. But within Glass’s whirling, shifting kaleidoscope textures, they became hauntingly post-modern.
The three-movement work, set for piano and strings, was flawlessly performed with a smallish string orchestra. Dinnerstein conducted from the piano. The audience offered a standing ovation for composer and performers.
OBF’s Uncertain Future
I’ve been attending and reviewing OBF off and on since 1982. Having lived also in Stuttgart, I’m very familiar with Helmuth Rilling’s artistry. I found Matthew Halls an extraordinary successor to Rilling, and a musician who immediately brought a new life to the festival when many thought it would die without its founding artistic director.
Judging from the seven events I saw this year, OBF 2018 was below the standards of years past. Nothing distinguished it from an ordinary lineup of classical fare. No artistic vision unified the schedule or oversaw the standards of performance. Engaging with how a particular conductor thinks about music was no longer possible for devoted audience members. Following that conductor’s musical talent (first Rilling, then Halls) from year to year and piece to piece has been the most important feature of OBF. With the absence of a world-class musician heading the festival, I felt a profound artistic void.
After the festival, McCoy said that one reason for OBF 2018’s success was the use of “more conductors.” These words indicate that McCoy will advocate multiple conductors for OBF instead of a single music director in the future. Moving ahead without an artistic director makes McCoy the de facto music director. Those in power should re-examine her qualifications to take over those duties.
Wherever you look across the world arts culture, performing organizations are searching for and signing conductors to lend new levels of excitement and interest for their audiences. Would you advocate multiple conductors without a single artistic director for a symphony orchestra? The Eugene Symphony, for example? Meantime, the Eugene Symphony is attracting audiences and press coverage for its new charismatic conductor, Francesco Lecce-Chong. OBF, once the most prestigious arts organization in Eugene, has decidedly given up that position.
OBF should immediately undertake a search for a new artistic director and bring candidates — one a year — in coming seasons. Audiences will be intrigued and will buy tickets. Without such a plan, I think the festival will fade away, note by note.
Composer, author and music critic Tom Manoff was the classical music reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered from 1986-2012. He has also written for the New York Times and Eugene Register Guard.